Opponents are attacking, beating Tigers with elevated fastballs

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
John Hicks strikes out during the ninth inning Sunday, one of the Tigers' 13 for the game, including five from Hicks.

Detroit — To form hard and fast conclusions from a 15-game sample size in a 162-game season is, at the least, impetuous. It may even be foolhardy.

Especially with the Tigers. They’ve played in awful weather conditions, particularly the last two weeks. The schedule has been choppy with scheduled and weather-forced off-days. They’ve played nine of their first 15 on the road.

What you see now may not be anything like what you see in a month or two — good or bad.

But, there’s still value in red-lining certain early trends for the purpose of enhancing or exterminating them. Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire emphatically highlighted one of those trends after the loss Sunday in Minnesota and marked it for extermination.

“We're taking big whiffs an awful lot,” he said. “As we talked about for a long time around here, there is such a thing as a two-strike approach. We need people to buy into it a little bit."

The Tigers struck out 13 times Sunday. They have the fourth most strikeouts in the American League and the eighth most in the major leagues (149). The raw strikeout numbers are concerning, for sure.

But when you put them in context of game situations, and you look at how opposing pitchers are attacking and getting those strikeouts, that’s when it gets alarming.

The Tigers right now are the worst-hitting team in baseball with runners in scoring position. They are hitting .175, 22 for 176. Forty of those outs were strikeouts. They have struck out 21 times with runners on second base or third base with less than two outs.

So, it’s really no wonder the Tigers are last in the American League with 40 runs (12 fewer than second-worst Cleveland) and 37 RBIs (10 fewer than Cleveland).

“We’re struggling to score runs right now, but I know we’re going hit,” Gardenhire said. “We think we have some good hitters here. We just haven’t gotten it going just yet.”

Tigers hitters have chased their share of sliders and curveballs outside the strike zone, to be sure. But it’s been the fastball that’s vexed them most so far.

Miguel Cabrera leads the Tigers with 17 strikeouts, and 10 of those came off fastballs. He’s seeing 53 percent fastballs in his at-bats and he’s swinging and missing on 30.4 percent of them (Statcast).

Josh Harrison, who as struck out 12 times, is getting fastballs thrown to him 64 percent of the time, and he’s 4 for 32 (.156) with 31 percent swing-and-miss rate. He’s got a 33 percent whiff rate overall.  

Sixty percent of the pitches Jeimer Candelario has seen have been fastballs, and he’s hitting .222 (6 for 36) with an 18 percent whiff rate. He has struck out 16 times and has a 33 percent chase rate on all pitches out of the zone.

Christin Stewart has struck out 14 times, 10 on fastballs. He’s seeing heaters 60 percent of the time, too, and hitting just .167 with a 34.2 percent whiff rate.

Those numbers are based on four-seam fastballs only. They don’t include two-seam sinkers or cutters. That’s a lot of missed fastballs.

“I can see just like you can see — they’re getting beat with the fastball,” Gardenhire said. “With the fastball up (in the strike zone). A lot of teams are doing that and it’s kind of an Achilles’ heel for us right now.

“That’s what’s going on in Major League Baseball right now, a lot of pitches are being elevated to kind of combat the (steeper) launch angles. We have to find a way to beat that.”

The Tigers don’t have many hitters with exaggerated launch angles, though. Which brings Gardenhire back to his original point ¡ more guys need to buy in to shortening their swings and having a better two-strike approach.

“We have guys who should hit the ball out of the park,” Gardenhire said. “But there’s also a way to cut down on strikeouts, put the ball in play and give yourself a chance. We’ll get better as we go along. We have a lot of young people in our lineup. We will get better.”  

On deck: Pirates

Series: Two-game series at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday, 6:40 p.m.

TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM Tuesday-Wednesday

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Joe Musgrove (1-0, 0.00) vs; LHP Matthew Boyd (1-, 2.60); Wednesday — RHP Trevor Williams (1-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-2, 4.80).

Musgrove, Pirates: He’s got six pitches in his tool box, but his slider has been especially dirty. Opponents are whiffing on the pitch 45 percent of the time and hitting just .167. He has a 15-3 strikeout-to-walk rate, as well.

Boyd, Tigers: His 29 strikeouts are tied for fourth most in the American League. He outpitched the Indians’ Trevor Bauer in his last start, allowing a run on four hits over six innings. Boyd allowed four runs in the fourth inning of his first start of the year. Since, he’s allowed two runs over 16 innings.


Twitter: @cmccosky